(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads for Turkey later this week at a time of escalating tensions in the relationship, as the Turks’ military operation against U.S.-backed Kurds in northwestern Syria takes its toll and an American pastor remains in jail 16 months after being arrested on purported security charges.
At a pre-trip briefing, a senior State Department official acknowledged that there would be “difficult” conversations, given the “hot” Turkish rhetoric on U.S. policy in Syria.
Ankara accuses the targets of its offensive in Afrin, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), of links to anti-Turkey terrorists. But the YPG are also key U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, and Washington has repeatedly urged restraint.
Weekend reports in Kurdish media citing Afrin health authorities say about 150 civilians and 98 Kurdish fighters have been killed since the Turkish assault began on Jan. 20.
As Tillerson’s regional travels took him to Kuwait for meetings on ISIS and Iraq, his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, suggested Monday that U.S.-Turkey ties were at a make-or-break point, citing the YPG issue.
“Our relations are at a very critical point,” the Hurriyet daily quoted him as saying in Istanbul. “They will either be fixed or these ties will be completely damaged.”
Cavusoglu said it was up to the U.S. to restore “lost trust,” since it was responsible for the state of affairs.
“Our demands from the U.S. are clear and have already been conveyed,” he said. “We no longer want to hear about promises, we want to hear about concrete steps.”
Cavusoglu has now arrived in Kuwait City to attend the same meetings as Tillerson.
A senior State Department official traveling with Tillerson in Kuwait declined to comment on “foreign government officials’ statements,” but said the fact Tillerson was heading to Turkey was “an indication that we believe discussions are worthwhile and we’ll continue to pursue them.”
Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have made it clear that Turkey is an important NATO ally whose legitimate security concerns are taken seriously.
Still, the administration official in the pre-trip briefing stressed the U.S. would be on the offensive when it comes to American citizens and employees detained in Turkey.
“The issue of human rights and the arrest of our citizens and our locally engaged staff, that’s first on the agenda,” the official said. “There’s no pulling punches on that.”
“That’s an issue that’s going to be a difficult one to work through, but it’s one that we take seriously, because we have no higher priority than the safety of our people overseas.”
‘Serious concerns about respect for judicial independence’
Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor who worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, was arrested in October 2016 and remains behind bars despite personal entreaties by President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government accuses him of having links to Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed 2016 coup attempt.
Erdogan last fall hinted that he could release Brunson in exchange for Gulen, prompting critics in the U.S. to charge that the pastor has effectively become a “hostage.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, which is advocating for Brunson’s freedom, said this week the pastor “remains locked away in a Turkish prison, seemingly held as a political prisoner while his emotional and physical state deteriorate.”
The ACLJ said that in a “hopeless and heartbreaking” note to his wife from his cell, Brunson had asked for prayer and acknowledged being “very discouraged.”
“We will continue to fight this violation of justice and human rights until Pastor Andrew is released and returned home to his family in America,” said the organization, whose petition calling for Brunson’s release has garnered some 422,000 signatures.
Also in Turkish custody is Metin Topuz, a Turk employed by the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, who has been accused of terrorism, espionage, and links to Gulen’s movement – which the Erdogan government calls a terrorist organization.
Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American physicist at NASA, was arrested while visiting Turkey in mid-2016. Last week he was convicted – “without credible evidence,” according to the U.S. Embassy – of being a member of a terrorist organization.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said his case and others raised “serious concerns about respect for judicial independence, protections enshrined in the Turkish constitution, including an individual’s right to a fair trial.”
Some U.S. lawmakers are considering options for applying pressure on Turkey, including the possibility of targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows for punitive measures against human rights abusers and corrupt actors globally.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) argued that the administration “should impose sanctions against Turkish officials involved in the prolonged and wrongful imprisonment of Americans.”
“The White House has the tools necessary to institute a range of targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, but Congress is more than willing to provide additional incentives if needed,” he said.
Shortly before the one-year anniversary of Brunson’s incarceration last October, Lankford described Turkey on the Senate floor as “not the same NATO ally and friend of the United States that they have been.”